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  • Writer's pictureWEDossett


Last week a shorter version of this essay was published in The Times Higher Education

I've posted below a longer version for anyone who couldn't get behind the paywall. And I've included a picture of the most iconic professor of them all, Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss, who is *really* (so it is said) just a carved wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker.

Having early retirement forced upon me this summer by a heart attack was upsetting. Among the griefs of being wrenched away from TRSChester colleagues and students, and of having to relinquish the joy of teaching, was a lesser, but nonetheless nagging, regret that after 28 years on the job, I hadn't yet made full professor. I'd applied in the previous year and been unsuccessful. A couple of relevant career achievements were at that point still in the works. I'd been encouraged to try again, but now I wouldn't have the opportunity.

The topic arose in my pre-retirement discussions with senior members of the University, and I was told that, although it couldn’t be guaranteed as I would have to be deemed to meet the criteria, a proposal could be made to award me the title upon my retirement. This was welcome news. If the proposal were to be successful, it would be an acknowledgement of the standing of my impact and public engagement work. Moreover, the title would incorporate an ongoing relationship with both University and Department. It would offer me access to resources to support future research and writing, to the extent that my health allows it, as well as a vehicle by which to give something back.

There is a custom (though it’s not automatic) that retired professors, like archbishops and popes (!), are awarded the title 'Emeritus' - from the Latin meaning emerere 'completed one's service'; merere being 'merit'. The adjective can appear before or after title; 'Professor Emeritus' or 'Emeritus Professor.' The vast majority of professor-ranked women who retire and are awarded the title, take the adjective 'Emerita', as the female styling of Emeritus.

In 2019/2020 28% of the UK professoriate identified as female. Ten years ago, it was a mere 22%. There are comparatively few female-identifying professors knocking around, and they are only just beginning to hit retirement in any number at all, so perhaps it is not surprising that there has not been, to the best of my knowledge, more discussion on the implications of post-retirement titles.

The first time I gave the 'Emerita' title any thought at all was only a couple of years ago, when I had a conversation over lunch with my former Head of Department, Professor Frances Knight. Frances and I had stayed in touch when we both moved to different universities more than a decade earlier. In this conversation, Frances spoke about her recent retirement, and explained her unusual post-retirement title. She said, "'Emerita' doesn't make any grammatical sense. The adjective qualifies the noun (Professor), not the title-holder." Frances is now Emeritus Professor in the History of Christianity at the University of Nottingham.

Coupling the memory of this conversation with the welcome news that I would be proposed, I had to ask myself what I thought about the gendered title. Changes of status like this are formed and sacralised by custom and practice, and so there is an inherent pressure not to question them – perhaps especially not when you are grateful! In fact, unless we have a special reason for being sensitised, we often don't even notice the power structures they enact. I wonder whether I would have thought about it myself had Frances not given me pause. But she did, and I have found myself questioning, and reflecting a little on the ways my gender, and gendered social constructs in general, have been salient in my career.

Most women with a PhD will tell you that the fact you can reply to the question “Mrs or Miss?” with “Dr, actually” is a form of joyous relief that never gets old. Of course, other women must deal with this awful question all the time - awful because it defines (limits) us by gender and by marital status. The marital status issue has been addressed to some extent by the option 'Ms', but how often is that option not available in a drop-down menu? 'Mx' de-genders the title, but, while this might change, it's a courtesy title still more likely to be associated with the claiming of non-binary identity than with an eschewing of gendered titles altogether. Men would have to use it in large numbers for that to be achieved. Perhaps more men would if they knew about it, but such is the power of normativity; it's almost never presented as an option. And I suspect even if it were, there would be a bias against, because to take it would be to give away power.

‘Professor’, like ‘Doctor’, is not gendered. In the United Kingdom and many other contexts, the title indicates the highest academic rank. In the United States, the equivalent status is styled 'Full-Professor', the adjective being required because ordinary university lecturers are colloquially called 'professors'. In contrast to lower-ranking academic promotions, the title is not automatic on years of service. It is a criteria-based conferment, indicating distinction and carrying certain responsibilities for disciplinary leadership. But for all its immense cargo of meaning, gender is not part of it. Not explicitly, anyway.

While gender is not inbuilt into the term that denotes the rank, gender is of course not irrelevant here. It is harder for a woman to become a professor than it is for a man. In fact, it's harder for women to advance in academia at any level above graduate level. Although this has improved slightly, it has nonetheless remained the case throughout the three decades of my career.

In the first year of my PhD, at a cross-disciplinary method and theory seminar more than 30 years ago, an archaeology PhD student nearing completion said that she planned to ensure that her publications did not initialise or omit her first name. She wanted readers to know that she was Mary and not Michael. It mattered to her that her female gender was explicit, foregrounded and clearly associated with her outputs. Archaeology was a male-dominated field, and she was being the change she wanted to see. I had, at that point, never considered the way customs can occlude (or highlight) gender, and why that might matter contextually. Her words had a big impact on me.

I can see an argument for female versions of the titles Dr and Professor, that situate them as ranked higher than the male versions, since the obstacles in the way of attaining them mean they are objectively higher attainments. However, our language and social structures don't work like that. Feminisation tends to diminish. Not only do the terms ‘actress’ and ‘waitress’ indicate a diminutive deviation from the default, they also, potentially, sexualise. This is why, these days, there's a preference for 'actor', and 'server' for all genders. Dropping the 'W' from WPC (Woman Police Constable) happened officially in the UK in the last century, but we're still catching up with that culturally. There still seems to be a need to add 'woman' on the front of 'footballer' and 'cricketer', and 'male' on the front of 'nurse.' I was so proud of my late brother who fully embraced his nursing rank of matron, despite it being a source of amusement to some.

While a woman's doctorate or professorship is objectively a higher attainment, if we were to indicate gender explicitly in the title, just as in other fields, it would diminish not enhance. Should a female academic be referred to as a doctoress; a professorette? While other languages might figure gender as integral -- Doctora or Profesora in Spanish, for example -- English doesn't. So, if we actively deploy it, we also release all the toxins of gender stereotyping and inequality.

Some years ago, following a spate of men undermining the academic achievements of women, there was a drive on Twitter for women with doctorates to include 'Dr' in their Twitter name. As a Twitter-user, I remember feeling torn, being averse to status-signalling in a space valuable for its social diversity. I like interacting with folk on Twitter/X who might be, or feel themselves to be, outside or on the bottom of all sorts of social hierarchies, let alone the specific and arcane hierarchies of the academy. My qualifications are really not the most important thing about me. But, ultimately, I decided to join in and added my 'Dr', mainly for the reason that if we don't back ourselves within the patriarchy, it will eat us. And, in all honesty, I like my title. Not only was it extremely hard-earned (I'm amazed I got through it, but that's another story), I think the thesis that secured the title is of value. And I deeply appreciate the easy shorthand the title supplies for 'my marital status and gender are none of your damn business.'

I've had the privilege of a gender-free courtesy title since 1997 when I attained my doctorate.

How strange it is then, on the point of my retirement, that my gender should hove back into view, for no reason whatsoever.

In a valuable account of a North American Professor's personal thinking on this, published in 2021, Jennifer J. Freyd proposes the gender free 'Emerit' rather than all the other options of 'Emeritus', 'Emerita', 'Emeritum' or 'Emeritx'. I rejected 'Emeritum' because, even though I appreciate the way it overcomes the gender binary like ‘they/them’ does, I personally identify as female, not as non-binary. To assume a ‘they/them’ equivalent title might seem like I was claiming an identity I'm not entitled to. 'Emeritx' is, to my mind, the best explicitly non-gendered option, but Freyd points out it is also commonly used as a plural noun, and so rejects it in favour of 'Emerit'. However, for me, a move to either Emerit or Emeritx would imply an abandonment of Emeritus on the grounds that it is inherently male. I don't think that is the case, any more than the term Professor is inherently male. Although it’s grammatically male, Emeritus just means 'completed one's service.' It doesn't mean 'a man who has completed his service.' This would be like saying there is something inherently male about 'actor.' We only attribute male gender to the term, if we do, because there has been a female alternative. I have asked my university to style me as Emeritus and they have agreed.

My argumentation may well be flawed, and I may be missing opportunities to both drive and participate in a paradigm shift to a whole new way of referring to retired professors. I worry about this. I even worry that in rejecting Emerita, I may appear to be disavowing my female gender. As if I'm saying that I, personally, think there is something diminutive about female gender. I most assuredly think the opposite. My hope is that, in asking to break with tradition and call myself Emeritus rather than Emerita, at the very least I’m signalling that the role of professor is equal in demand and status, regardless of gender. As Freyd points out, from the perspective of employment law, having the same title helps to guard against employers trying to imply roles are different because a difference is embodied in the post-retirement title. I also hope the minor shock-value of deviating from tradition prompts others to think about the way titles embody power-dynamics that might actually need dismantling rather than shoring-up.

Ultimately, though, I look forward to learning what non-binary and gender-fluid professors will do as they begin to retire in numbers. Whatever they do, it will lead the way for the rest of us in the challenging task of remaking language to make it hospitable for all people.


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